Saturday, December 9, 2017

Western Isles Hotel - Tobermory

On our first trip to Scotland my wife and I wanted to stay at the Western Isles Hotel. It is an historic hotel, built in 1882, high on the hill above Tobermory. A more scenic place to stay would be hard to find. 

Tobermory Bay - Western Isles Hotel at upper right
But they only had one vacant room. And so my parents, who were travelling with us, were able to stay, but my wife and I had to find a B&B on the other side of town. Since then my wife and I have stayed in the hotel twice, and I stayed there by myself for a few winter days in 2000 (see book 1, chapter 13). The price has gone up quite a bit since then, and now costs something like 200 a night in the summer. But it's well worth it to stay in this amazing place, which made an appearance in the 1945 classic island film 'I Know Where I'm Going' (see this link).

I happen to like the old building, but this excerpt about the hotel, from Frank Walker's excellent  book Argyll and the Islands, is not complementary:

A ponderous building constructed in whinstone rubble with red sandstone dressings...was erected at a time when it seemed that Victorian tourism might make Tobermory one of the most fashionable watering places in the west. High above the Mishnish pier ...its grim skyline dominates the bay.

It can be grim; on a wet and windy day. But on a bright spring day, with the harbour below full of ships, it is anything but grim. I have found myself 'stranded' in Tobermory several times over the years. By stranded, I mean on a cruise where the fellow passengers wanted to go ashore to visit the shops. I am not a shopper, so to pass the time I'll go for a walk east to Aros Park, or west to the Rubha nan Gall lighthouse. Then I'll spend whatever time is left enjoying a beer, along with the view, up on the patio of the Western Isles. Try it, I think you'll like it.

View from the bar patio

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Bothy of Poems

This story appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Uig News. My thanks to Sarah Wilson for the opportunity to write for them. 

The Bothy of Poems - Fidigidh 2017

I found a book of poems in a bothy. Not a bothy in the usual sense, but a ‘bothan’: one of over two hundred corbelled-stone beehive cells sprinkled across the Hebrides. To me, this ‘Bothy of Poems’ is a special place. It sits in splendid isolation along the cascading waters of Abhainn Fhidigidh, one of the traditional shieling sites for Islibhig, Brenish, and Mangersta.

Beehive cells are fascinating structures, ranging in age from 300, to upwards of 1400 years old. I was surprised when I found a book of poems in one of them, its name Both Ruadh. This particular cell spurred my interest in beehives twenty years ago, when I read of an epic walk to it in Daphne Pochin Mould’s book ‘West Over Sea’. Of the two-hundred plus cells remaining, only a handful are intact. Over the years I’ve made it a hobby to visit, and photograph, the more intact cells before they collapse.

Collapsed shieling - Lower Fidigidh
It has been a challenge to reach some of the best preserved cells; such as St Ronan’s Cell on distant North Rona, and Teampull Beannachadh, a beehive converted to a chapel on the Flannan Isles. Getting to these islands usually requires multiple attempts, as the sea-state often precludes a landing. But the effort is worthwhile; for as with Both Ruadh, the intricate beauty of Teampull Beannachadh and St Ronan’s Cell will take your breath away. As will the simple elegance of the tiny cell, with its garden of sea-pinks, on the island of Eilean Fir Chrothair.

St Ronan's Cell
Teampull Beannachadh - Flannan Isles
Both Eilean Fir Chrothair
You don’t need a boat to see Both Ruadh; just sturdy boots, midge repellent, and the ability to trek across difficult terrain. My first attempt, via the Tamnabhaigh track, failed. The track is a stony, seven-mile route that winds its way up Bealach Raonasgail. That day it had been raining heavily, and bits of the track were washed out. That should have been my clue to turn around, but I kept going. Once over the pass, I turned east to cross the southern shoulder of Mula. Then my walk came to a grinding halt at the raging waters of Abhainn Ghasacleit. I was less than a mile from the beehive, but there was no safe way to cross the river.

I returned in 2015, successfully reaching Both Ruadh by making the five mile hike from Morsgail. The cell, still retaining much of its turf covering, was stunning. But more treasures awaited. A ten-minute walk north leads to one of the best collections of intact bothans and shielings anywhere: Fidigidh Uachdrach (Upper Fidigidh).

Upper Fidigidh

Upper Fidigidh
I’ve returned to Fidigidh twice since then. During my visit this year, I found the book of poems. It is a travelling book, meant to be taken to another place. I will have to think of somewhere as fascinating as Fidigidh to leave it. It was left in the beehive a year ago, which shows just how few visitors ever make their way to far-off Fidigidh.

One of the poems in the book is Yeat’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The first verse makes me think what it must have been like in Uig on an early summer’s day; crossing Bealach na h-Imrich, the pass of the flitting, to head off to the shielings. Off to a place like Fidigidh; as remote as Yeat’s isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Lonely Levinish - St Kilda

I doubt if it's in my future to climb any of the stacks of St Kilda, but it would be interesting to have done so. I have, however, had the privilege of motoring up close to the major stacks; Stac Dona, Stac Biorach, Soay Stac, Stac Armin, Stac Lee, and lonely Levenish.

Levenish is indeed lonely. Connected to Dun by a submerged ridge, it stands all by itself two miles out from Village Bay. Rising to just over 200 feet above the sea, it pales in comparison to the other stacks. But being visible from Village Bay, it shows up in the background of many photos.

Stac Levenish on a grey Kilda day

A Kilda landing - Stac Levenish in the distance
I've only come across one description of someone landing on Levenish, and that was Dr. A M Cockburn who visited it in 1927. He reported finding wild marguerites, sea-pinks, and scurvy-grass on the summit. When I sailed by a few dozen fulmars were nesting in cracks on the side of the rock, but nothing like the massive bird life found on the other stacks.

Levenish would be a star if was all by itself. It is four times as high as Rockall, and difficult to land on. But the superstar stacks, Stac Armin and Stac Lee, draw all the attention. If you ever sail to St Kilda, be sure to appreciate this rugged sentinel in the sea, one the Kildans of old could see most every day. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Taransay Walk

My favorite walk on Taransay begins with the climb to the top of Beinn Ra. From the summit, if the sky is clear, you'll be greeted with a view of St Kilda, 55 miles to the west.

Top of Taransay (1998) - Kilda on the horizon
Of course, the weather does not always cooperate. The above photo was taken the first time I visited Taransay in 1998. The next photo is from a gray and windy day in 2011. Kilda was not visible.

Once at the top the best part of the walk begins; the descent to the southwest toward Loch an Dùin. I love this part because the hard work is behind you, and as you drop down the hillside you are surrounded by stunning views of sea and islands. Navigation is easy, for as you descend you set a course directly towards something amazing; something you can see floating in the loch in the next photo: the fort of Loch an Duin.

Next stop - Loch an Duin
As you near the loch you can tell that the speck of land in it is more than just an island; a small causeway can be seen, one that you hope will allow you to get across to the island.

The causeway stones are a bit slippy, but if you are careful it is easy to cross to the fort.

There is a bit of a gap in the causeway, right after the Clach Ghlagain, the rattle stone. If you step on it, and you have to, it will crash against another stone with a loud clank, alerting the dun-dwellers that someone is calling.

The Rattle Stone (centre)
The fort itself is fairly small, but an impressive structure none the less. For a drawing of what it looked like in 1890 see page 397 of this link.

From the loch it is only a half mile down to the shore, where there awaits another island treasure: St Taran's Cross.

Near the cross is the Uidhe Bothy, a cozy place to hang around for a night or two.

Depending on where you were set ashore you'll either rejoin your boat on the shore below the bothy, or make your way back to the yellow sands of Corran Ra. Taransay is an ideal island for a long loop walk to see historic sites and beautiful beaches; all centered around a 900 foot climb to the top of the island, where you'll be rewarded with views of a beautiful island-studded seascape. Sea Harris offers day trips to Taransay, and many Northern Light trips include a visit to the island.

Corran Ra

Corran Ra beach landing

Monday, November 13, 2017

Islands from the Air

During my last flight to the UK I had a window seat. As we approached the Western Isles there was not a cloud in the sky, and I had am amazing bird's-eye view of the islands; starting with Scarp, then the islands in the Sound of Harris, all the way over Skye, the Small Isles, and Mull. But, sadly, I did not have a camera with me.

And so on the flight home a few weeks later I made sure I had a camera. But, of course, the weather was bad. Even so, between the clouds the occasional island made a brief appearance. I was blessed with tantalizing views of Colonsay, Insh, Mull, Iona, Inchkenneth, Hyskier, Eriskay, and South Uist. Shortly after passing Eriskay the clouds decided I'd seen enough, and closed in completely. I pulled down the blind, and went to sleep with visions of islands dancing in my head.

Here are a few island views from 10,000 feet.

Colonsay and Oronsay

Insh - once home to a Brownie and a naked hermit
Loch Buie - Mull

The Ross of Mull - Iona at the far end

Inchkenneth and Little Colonsay


Last view of the isles - Eriskay and Rubha na h-Ordaig (South Uist)

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Isle of Donovan and Rory the Venomous

I have only been to Isay once; on a dark, wet, and gloomy day in May 2009 (see chapter 4 of book 2). The Gaelic spelling is 'Ìosaigh'. I am not sure of the correct pronunciation; but I've heard all the following: "Icy", "Ice-ay", "E-oh-sigh", "E-shay", and "E-oh-say". Isay lies in Loch Dunvegan, six miles north of Dunvegan Castle. The first thing that strikes you when approaching the island is the gaunt outline of Isay House; last inhabited in 1860, and where a mass killing occurred.

Isay first caught my attention 30 years ago when I read the story of Dr. Johnson's visit to the Hebrides (1773). The following is from Boswell’s journal of the trip:

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isay. MacLeod said he would give it to Mr. Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year, nay, one month. Mr. Johnson was highly pleased with the fancy… He talked a great deal of this island—how he would build a house, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck.

Upwards of ninety people called Isay home in the nineteenth century, when it had been a fishing station with a general store. That era of occupation came in 1830, made up of people evicted from Bracadale, fifteen miles away on Skye. But life on the island came to an end in 1860 when it was cleared for sheep.

At the south end of the village lies the ruin of Isay House. The house is an eerie looking structure. Its roof is missing, and the jagged and split gable ends look like pincers pointing to the sky. Access to the first floor is via a once balustered staircase. The door is gone, and if you step through the opening you'll fall ten feet onto the rocky ground floor, as the house is now just a shell.

If he had taken MacLeod up on his offer, this could have been Samuel Johnson’s holiday home, from where he could have sallied forth to take the Isle of Muck. But there was someone who stood here forty years ago that did make Isay a holiday home of sorts, and that was the singer Donovan. Donovan bought Isay, the two neighboring isles of Mingay and Clett, and some nearby land on Skye in the late 1960s.

An earlier owner, 400 years before Donovan, was Ruairaidh MacAilein MacLeod, known as Nimheach (the venomous). MacLeod wanted his son to inherit Raasay and the lands of Gairloch, but his family was third in line for the inheritance. So Ruairaidh decided to host a banquet, and the families that stood in the way were invited to Isay. During dinner he invited each attendee, one by one, to have a private word with him and, one by one, they were quickly dispatched.

Isay is an island that's had a few moments of fame in its time, but is now mostly left alone. I visited it during one of the Northern Light cruises. My 2008 edition of Hamish Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands says day trips may be available from Dunvegan in the summer. I'm not sure if that's still true, and a search on the internet does not show any such trips on offer from Dunvegan. But you can get there for a few hours on the 'Go Ashore and Explore' day-trip offered by Diver's Eye Boat Trips, which operates out of Stein, two miles east of Isay. A more fascinating destination for a day out would be hard to find.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Calanais VII - Cnoc Dubh

Not all of the numbered Calanais sites are stone circles. One of them, Calanais VII, is a beehive cell. Of all the beehive cells in existence, this one is the easiest to visit. It lies on Cnoc Dubh (NB 232 302), just above the B8011 highway to Uig (Lewis), a mile south of Garynahine.

I must have driven by the Cnoc Dubh beehive a dozen times over the years and never noticed it. (It is visible from the highway). I first learned about it earlier this year when I read Alastair McIntosh's excellent book Poacher's Pilgrimage. The author pays a visit to the cell as part of an epic walk from Rodel to the Butt of Lewis. 

The cell had been vandalized many years ago by someone who thought it was a Druid's house, and as such, linked to the devil. About 15 years ago, armed with photos of how the cell once looked (see this link for an example), Seamus Crawford (of Lewis) restored this beautiful structure. 

Having read about the cell in Poacher's Pilgrimage last February, a visit to Cnoc Dubh was very first thing I did on a visit to Lewis in July. Mr. Crawford did some amazing work here, and inside the cell you can see the markers placed on the stones to aide the restoration. 

Aside from the monastic cells on the Garvellachs, the Cnoc Dubh cell is constructed of stones much larger than any other intact cell I've visited. No one knows how old the cell is, but it was know to be inhabited in the 1860s. With its turf covering in place it should last for at least another century.

Next time you are in Lewis be sure to pay a visit to Cnoc Dubh. You can park off the road just where a dirt track climbs the hillside east of the highway. A two-minute hike up the track will take you to the cell. It is a thing of beauty.